An icon is someone who floats above the culture. Consider Orson Welles, the subject of my upcoming film Me and Orson Welles, and an icon if there ever was one. He was a larger-than-life personality and immense talent who has come to mean a great deal to many people. But the more you study his life, the more unknowable he becomes. He was a notoriously unreliable narrator. He never distinguished between fact and fiction. Everything — from Shakespeare to his own personal history — was open to reinterpretation.
Even though most of us know Orson Welles by name, or at least by Citizen Kane, none of us really knows him. When you’re an icon, you’re not just a person — you’re a myth. Perhaps that’s good for a certain kind of ego, but it’s not good for an artist. People think they have you figured out. Being an icon can be a curse.
And yet, the supremely talented have a way of upending expectations. Truly creative people are never fixed, they’re never simple, they’re always works in progress, they’re always moving. The late Paul Newman, for example, filled his career with iconic performances. In the hands of a lesser actor, they might not have been memorable at all. Every time we thought we had him pegged, he would do something different.
When thinking about the definition of an icon — which, like “genius,” is a word I don’t use lightly — I always look to the elders. Bob Dylan is a living icon. Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen are living icons. Kurt Cobain was all the rage during the last three or four years of his life, but icon status, because of his youth, probably wasn’t official until after he died. Icons have bodies of work that stand up over time, and are always changing—as are our relationships to them.
I think about my feelings toward Welles over the years. At some points in my life, I thought he was a hero. At others, I focused on the flaws in his personality. Trying to make a movie about him has made me reconsider my position yet again. I only have understanding, love and forgiveness for him now, even though people keep trying to convince me he was a badly behaved enfant terrible.
Today, you can click a button and watch all three of James Dean’s movies. You can see all of Marilyn Monroe’s films whenever you want. We’ll be able to listen to Michael Jackson and watch him dance forever. The performances, rich to begin with, have become even more layered and infused with various meanings, because we bring so much knowledge to watching them.